When I was six years old my best friend was Jenny, a cute little blond whose house was four houses up the street from mine. I had frequent play dates at Jenny‘s house – she lived on a cul-de-sac where we strolled our baby dolls around in circles.
One of my mom’s favorite musings about me was that when I had enough of Jenny I would quietly and definitively pack up my doll in my stroller and wheel her home. She would hear my rickety stroller rattling down the street sometimes after playing for two hours and other times after only fifteen minutes.
My mom says that she never had to call for me to come home because I seemed to have an innate sense of when I needed a break from Jenny. When I was done, I was done!
Determining when to take personal timeouts
Apparently, at least according to my mom, I was quite savvy at determining when to take “personal timeouts” from my friends. I’m not talking about timeouts as a punishment, but rather as a healthy and well-timed break.
In romantic relationships, taking a well-timed break as a way to manage difficult conversations can also be a powerful psychological tool.
Deliberate relationship timeouts can help couples more effectively modulate their thoughts and emotions. Timeouts are an effective way for couples to manage difficult conversations or conversations they are not prepared to have at that moment.
In order for this tool to be productive, couples must mutually agree that they will respect one another’s need to take emotional and or physical space for conversations they feel unprepared for or are just too heated and destructive.
How relationship timeouts create an emotionally safe pause
Partners may feel emotionally unprepared for conversations when they are feeling too tired, hungry or stressed. Many of the couples I work with in therapy make the mistake of igniting a difficult conversation before bedtime, after a long day of work or after a night out drinking. As you can imagine, these conversations typically don’t end well because they are badly timed options for communicating.
Couples who deliberately agree to table a conversation and revisit it at a later time create an emotionally safe pause that allows time for partners to process feelings, self-pacify and think more clearly.
The rug sweepers
Couples need to be able to have hard conversations, they cannot and should not be avoided. Some couples are quite good at shutting down a difficult conversation and experts at sweeping it under the rug; never talking about the issues again.
These are my “rug sweeper” couples, who never truly understand how the other feels or thinks.
They avoid hard conversations and often make erroneous assumptions about their partner’s feelings, thoughts and beliefs.
Timeouts should be used as a way to emotionally prepare to revisit a difficult talk, not avoid it altogether.
The commitment to revisiting conversations is just as important as time out.
Committing to finding a mutually agreed upon time to have challenging conversations builds trust in the partnership. Trust that both of you will show up emotionally during the hard times.
A revisited conversation does not guarantee that partners will agree with one another but rather that they will be more likely to hear one another.
The power of just really hearing one another can be curative; calming destructive thoughts and providing a sense of validation needed to create a connective conversation.
Relationship timeouts also have the amazing benefit of creating an opportunity for conversations to be continuous and ever evolving. Couples often believe that issues need to be resolved in one sitting. Totally untrue!
Most issues are not emergencies
Conversations that are allowed to be had over time continue to enhance the relationship’s foundation of emotional openness and trust.
Here are three healthy ground rules for taking relationship timeouts
1. Give one another permission
Give each other permission to take a break when conversations are feeling particularly charged or when one of you feels unprepared.
2. Determine your timeout cue word or symbol
Maybe you will say the word “time out” or maybe it is a hand sign that you give one another. Determine what it is and respect it.
3. Agree that you do not have to resolve issues in one sitting
It may take numerous conversations to get to a place where you are both comfortable. Employing these three steps will help strengthen your emotional trust, communication and the overall well-being of your relationship. In essence, slightly leaning out and giving your partnership more space will help you more productively lean into your relationship.
Even as adults, there are still times in our lives when we need to pack up our toys and take them home even if it is just for a moment.
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More by Barbara Steele Martin